Vietnam Veterans of America
When I arrived at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon in May 1969, a young American soldier in camouflage fatigues with an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder took one look at me—a 22-year-old blonde—and shouted, “What are you doing here? Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”
Women were an oddity in Vietnam. I got lucky. I had met Frank Mariano, a reporter for ABC-TV, who told me, “My girlfriend is a bureau chief and is looking for a journalist. I’ll recommend you and she can try you out.” In Saigon there were bureaus for the New York Times, Associated Press, ABC-TV, Agence-France Press, NBC, and other American and international news organizations. Their bureau chiefs and journalists were all men. Ann Bryan, who headed the Pacific Edition of the Oversees Weekly in Saigon, was the only female bureau chief in Southeast Asia.
Ann was cordial and friendly. She hired me on the spot as writer/photographer. She gave me a story idea and told me how the O.W. reported stories and tried me out. I guess I passed the test, and I continued to write and photograph for nine months.
The O.W. had a different angle than other publications. It covered the GI’s point of view, not the official view. The Pacific Edition was headquartered in Saigon, printed in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and distributed to GIs all over the Pacific, including American bases in Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines.
The paper was founded in 1959 in Germany by Marian von Rospach, a graduate of Stanford University. She had worked for the Army publication, Stars and Stripes, for many years and had grown frustrated with reporting official stories spoon-fed by information officers. She realized the real story—what was happening on the ground—could only be learned from the GIs who were there.
After failing to secure a job with The New York Times, Ann Bryan went to work for the O.W. and became its Saigon foreign correspondent. Many troops who were familiar with the O.W. in Germany asked for it to be distributed to American personnel in Vietnam and bases in the Far East. Ann and Marian went through the red tape but were unable to get approval, so they sued the Pentagon. After a lot of frustrations, they won. Ann was asked to open the Saigon Bureau of the Overseas Weekly-Pacific Edition in 1965.
Write a Narrative
When I arrived four years later, Ann said she had just “lost” a journalist and a photographer. I was afraid to ask how. She told me to circumvent the information officers and interview the grunts. Get their story.
She told me to write a narrative, a story. What happened first, second, third: beginning, middle, end. At that time journalism was meant to be “reporting the truth” from an unbiased point of view. As a journalist, you answered the basics: who, what, when, where, how. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb used to say.
The Overseas Weekly pioneered narrative journalism.
I had learned as a student at Berkeley that newspapers did not print the truth at all. Things I had seen with my own eyes—peaceful demonstrations for free speech—were not covered, while one-off crazies burning police cars were on the front page as “Student Riots.”
What I discovered in Vietnam was that American papers often printed what they thought people wanted to read. They were in the business of selling newspapers, not telling the truth. There were no photos of dead Americans, no gory information. That’s why the My Lai massacre story was so ground-breaking.
Ann Bryan was a tall, lanky, red-headed Texan in her mid-30s and had been a journalist for more than ten years since graduating from Texas Tech. She was a bit shy, not talkative, and a workaholic, staying in the office on Duy Tan Avenue late into the night to meet deadlines. She was highly respected among journalists and even by the brass that had tried to keep the O.W. out of circulation (and still tried to keep her and her staff away from sensitive information.)
The O.W. had a reputation among officers and especially information officers: Don’t let them out of your sight or they might report on things you don’t want to become public knowledge. The O.W. had broken stories on the U.S. being in Cambodia, pot smoking in the military, fragging, racism, and more. I was usually able to interview GIs and get their stories because the IOs didn’t want to waste their time sitting around while I interviewed them. I was after human interest stories, not breaking news.
One of the liabilities of being female in a man’s world of war was that the men kept asking you out. There were a lot of distractions, including flirting men, but the guts and grit that got you to Vietnam kept you focused on your job. There was a huge discrepancy between the role of woman—wife, girlfriend, daughter—and the role of journalist.
Women were little respected at that time in America. Their credit score was dependent on their husband: They couldn’t get credit cards on their own. When I graduated from college in 1966 I discovered that there were few decent jobs for women. Even entry-level jobs were only available for men. “Women will get pregnant and quit” and “Men need to support families” were common arguments for why good, responsible, high-paying jobs were not available to women.
I went to Vietnam to find out what the experience of war was about by being there and interviewing the young troops who were going to be running our country in the future. I discovered the Vietnam War was like a poem: intense emotion incomprehensible by the rational mind. I covered courts martial where young men were tried for financial scandals, murders, rapes, and mutilations. Morality took a nosedive when strong emotions suddenly arose.
I spent time with Ann Bryan after she returned from the war, was at her wedding to Frank Mariano in 1973, and met her two adopted Vietnamese orphan infant girls. She got a job writing for The Washington Post, and Frank taught at Harvard University until he contracted myocarditis and died later that year. Ann started losing her memory in her last years and died in 2002.
In 1966 Time magazine wrote: “Pacific Editor Ann Bryan, 35, is praised even by officers in Viet Nam. Without sacrificing femininity, the comely redhead has repeatedly gone out into the field under fire and written knowledgeably about combat troops.”
She was an amazon in the days when women were meant to stay in the kitchen.
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